Stu sat down on the hard pavement to resume his position on the busy street. With his dirty cap out in front of him and his gray cotton fleece wrapped about his weary form, he sought eye contact with every passing pedestrian.
"Spare change," he repeated again and again in a forced voice. No one was paying him any attention. But to grab their attention would require a certain amount of energy, a level of spirit which Stu had lost. He passed the next few hours in this manner, hopeless rejection taking any energy he managed to gather. A few quarters was all he gained.
Then the night arrived.
A drunk teenager and his girl approached, and Stu gave them the same greeting as always. "Spare change."
The teen stopped and flung his arms out to gesture at Stu. "Look at you man," he said. "You're not going to get any change sitting there like that. You gotta be friendly to people."
Stu gave the teen an honest look. "Spare change," he repeated.
The teen laughed at him. "Not when you're just sitting there! Why don't you get up and talk to people or tell jokes? Or sing us a song!"
"Sing us a song," giggled his girl, but she seemed to be in another world of blurry figures and tipsy emotions.
"Otherwise, you're just annoying people," the boy declared. Stu looked away and tried to bury these offensive words in silence.
But the teen was engaged now and wanted to further his arrogant point. "Come on man!" But Stu had numbed himself to the boy's presence. "What? Now you're ignoring me? People ignore you all day and you go and do it to me!" At last, the teen scoffed and stood up. "Come on," he said to his girl. "This guy's hopeless."
The teen walked on, shouting into the night, the girl giggling and tripping over the sidewalk in her high heels. Stu remained as always, silent and staring. Then someone new arrived.
"Spare change," Stu said.
The figure stopped. Stu stared at the black jacket of the man, but did not raise his eyes. No money fell into his hat. "Spare change," he repeated.
The jacket rustled and a hand was removed from the pocket. Stu's eyes quivered to either side as if the jacket was too intimidating to look at. The dismal street lamps, the scarred buildings, and the dead sign posts were not much of a backdrop so Stu looked back to the black jacket.
Then the man spoke. "That fool did not give you many options," he said in an even voice. "And by declaring that you had no hope, he took another bite out of the hope you have."
Stu finally looked up. A thoughtful face with fierce eyes gazed back. This man was different. He made eye contact. True eye contact. Stu blinked. The man was actually seeing him. It made him shiver.
"Now," the man said. "If I were to ask you to stand, would you?"
Stu frowned. "Spare change?" he asked.
The man's gaze hardened into steel and Stu had to look away. But as he stared bleakly down the street, he sensed the man kneel down beside him.
"Stu," the man said. "I have an offer to make."
Stu's head swung around. It had been a long time since someone had called him by his first name, let alone a mysterious stranger.
"I can see that you have fallen far. I can see that you have been muffled. But that doesn't define who you are. No matter how many people treat you like dirt, you will never actually turn into dirt. That is actually quite impossible." The man looked down the street in thought, giving Stu a moment to gain interest. "Change is extra challenging when you're stuck in a rut. But if you truly want 'spare change', I can help you find more of it than you could imagine if you do exactly as I say. If we have a deal, I want you to stand."
Stu wished to speak. He wished to say more than his usual statement. He wished to explain himself. He wished to ask questions. The man gave him a hard look; it was a measuring look and Stu could feel it sizing him up. He looked into the man's eyes.
The eyes shone. "See," the man whispered. "You are strong."
Stu took a few moments to gather himself as the man watched with a challenging gaze, and then Stu stood up.